Fiction Points: Elizabeth Kadetsky

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and two Best American Short Stories notable citations, and her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review, Post Road, Agni, and elsewhere. She has written for the Village VoiceThe Nation, and more. She has traveled to Malta as a creative writing fellow at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, to France as a fellow in the arts at Camargo Foundation, and to India as a two-time Fulbright fellow. She is the author of the memoir FIRST THERE IS A MOUNTAIN (Dzanc Books rEprint series, 2019; and Little Brown, 2004), the novella ON THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE CENTER OF THE WORLD (Nouvella, 2015), and the short story collection THE POISON THAT PURIFIES YOU (C&R Press, 2014). She discusses her newest book, THE MEMORY EATERS, below. It will be released on March 31, 2020, from the University of Massachusetts Press. She is an associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State University and a nonfiction editor at New England Review.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 2.00.56 PMThat is so fittingly surreal. I’d want them to know that they are definitely a part of my target audience for my memoir about addiction, homelessness, Alzheimer’s, and those heady days in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The penguin, with its affinity for cold climates, will also be drawn to my portrayal of my French Canadian family and the frigid landscape endured by my ancestors in Quebec. Also, the penguin—as a bird that can’t fly—will be drawn to the disability angle of my book, which treats not only Alzheimer’s, addiction, and mental health problems across my family, but a hidden disability.  My mother’s sister was institutionalized for epilepsy and mental development issues and died at age eleven in the institution, though the family didn’t talk about this to outsiders. My book explores the way that the stigma surrounding her disability reverberates for future generations of my family. 

And the nuns! With due respect (what are they doing in a bar anyway?) my mother’s disaffection from her Catholic upbringing and her conversion to first Judaism and then to a kind of pan-religious mysticism might disturb them, but, as rebels who patronize bars, they may find her story alluring. My mother had many staunchly Catholic aunts. The nuns may have avuncular, protective feelings toward my mother if they dig in to the book. 

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“Typhoid Junkie”: Controversies over Contagion and Cure in the Mid-20th Century

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is Part 1 in a series on The Addict and Addiction Treatment Before the War on Drugs. The next installment will come in March.

It is common today to think about drug addiction as an illness or disorder, and the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis that deserves a robust medical response. This framework is often paired with an implicit (or not) rebuke of past ways of dealing with addiction as a sin or a crime, something to be shamed and punished. The fact of mass incarceration, which has filled jails with hundreds of thousands of drug offenders, predominantly of color, since the early 1970s, has rightfully precipitated a renewed emphasis on treating addicts as people in need of treatment, not prison time.

However, if one looks closely at the long history of medicalizing drug addiction in the United States, they might conclude that applying a treatment framework to addiction does not necessarily lead to clear-cut or even humane solutions. In fact, the mid-twentieth century architects and enforcers of narcotics control policy—with its street-level raids and mandatory sentences—also espoused a belief in addicts’ sickness and need for medical treatment. When public concern about drug addiction skyrocketed in the postwar years, the dilemma facing policymakers and medical professionals was what was to be done with the addict, given that she was sick. In this way, debates over addiction and rehabilitation were also clashes about the responsibilities of the state to its citizens and the limits of individual liberty. 

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Asklepieion and the Transformation of Therapeutic Communities in a Time of Duress

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Kerwin Kaye. Kaye is Associate Professor of Sociology, American Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He is the author of the recent publication, Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State, from Columbia University Press.

Setting the Scene

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Dr. Kerwin Kaye

Most of those who study the history of drug treatment are probably already aware of the troubled story of Synanon, the first therapeutic community (or TC) for the treatment of drug addiction. Initially founded in 1958 in Santa Monica, California, Synanon was led by Chuck Dederich, a charismatic if sometimes abrasive figure by all accounts. While Synanon enjoyed approximately a decade of favorable media coverage (including praise from the California governor, a U.S. Senator, and a made-for-TV movie that valorized its approach), by the 1970s, press coverage turned decidedly negative. Dederich ordered all of the residents within Synanon to change their romantic partners, and decided upon the new pairings himself. Dederich also created an armed wing within Synanon called the Imperial Marines, and ordered those within the unit to prevent any of the residents from leaving. When one woman successfully fled and managed to get a lawyer to aid her legal case against the organization, that lawyer found himself the victim of a rattlesnake that had been placed in his mailbox on Dederich’s orders. Dederich was forced to step down from his leadership position within Synanon, but — as Time Magazine put it in 1977 — the organization was now seen as “a kooky cult.”[1]

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Fiction Points: Emily Arnason Casey

Emily Arnason Casey is the author of the essay collection Made Holy (2019). Her writing has appeared in literary journals such as The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus, Mid-American Review, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her essay “Laughing Water” received an notables listing in The Best American Essays series. She is the curator of “The Essay Exhibits: Art + Words,” eight works of art by eight Vermont artists in conversation with her essay “Beneath a Sky of Gunmetal Gray.” The exhibit is on display at a new Vermont library every month this year. Casey teaches at the Community College of Vermont and works independently with writers; she lives in rural Vermont with her family.

Screenshot 2020-02-04 at 8.03.44 AMTwo nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Holiness and death. Everyone has something sacred and something to which they devote themselves, whether it be spiritual or just an iPhone, or self-improvement which I think is just a part of capitalism. But mainly I write about death, indirectly. That we die and our lives are small and insignificant and trivial but we feel them to be immensely important and singular, and so they are and we are. I can’t get over this conundrum and so I write about it because in writing all the weird feelings and thoughts can become significant or they gain voices and lives of their own and I take comfort in this. I take comfort in beauty. 

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

In my nonfiction writing I grapple with the disease model of alcoholism. What causes this disease and is it really a disease in the traditional western idea of maladies? I can’t drink or drug because I form a compulsion and I can do nothing else but think about it, which makes life miserable. I write about my experiences as a child in an alcoholic family; though my parents are not alcoholic or addicted, one is the child of an alcoholic and the sibling to two alcoholics. Some of my siblings married alcoholic/addicts, my husband is from a child of an alcoholic family, my best friends are children of alcoholics, it’s such a social-emotional disease of behavior. I find this fascinating and frustrating. Made Holy, my essay collection, chronicles a woman’s journey into sober living and the ways she finds to deal with life—her obsessions and compulsions, her intensity. 

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Stories of Synanon, Part One

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is the first of a series of oral histories Mylet is working on with former members of Synanon. More will run on Points in the future. 

When Synanon is remembered at all today, it is as a “vindictive” and “violent cult,” whose methods still lie at the heart of destructive “tough love” programs for recovering drug addicts and problem teens. These exposés detail how Charles (“Chuck”) Dederich, who founded the group for alcoholics and addicts in 1958, forced his followers to shave their heads, switch romantic partners, and verbally abuse one another in a form of attack therapy called the “Synanon Game”—all of which, depending on your perspective, is one hundred percent true.

Nonetheless, supporters of Synanon throughout the 1950s and 1960s—among them senators and congressmen, famous movie stars and authors, renowned criminologists and psychologists, corporate leaders, and civil rights groups—would have been shocked by the way Synanon has been both forgotten and vilified. By the early 1970s, the organization had expanded to tens of thousands of members (including “dope fiends” and non-using “squares,” in Synanon lingo), partnered with state governments to manage semi-autonomous Synanon prison wings, produced a jazz LP, and donated truckloads of food and supplies to the United Farm Workers and Black Panthers. 

This summer, I interviewed one of the organization’s earliest members as part of an ongoing oral history project to capture the complexity of the Synanon story. Lena Lindsay moved into Synanon House in December 1959, when the group was operating out of an abandoned National Guard armory on the beach in Los Angeles. Much attention had been paid to drug addiction in California during the years before Lindsay joined Synanon. State lawmakers, responding to public outcry, introduced hundreds of narcotics bills, many of which recommended the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. In the mid-1950s, Camarillo State Hospital began publicizing its facilities to addicts, while the state’s Department of Corrections initiated plans to build facilities specifically for narcotics violators. Community resources for people struggling with drug addiction were basically nonexistent. 

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Synanon House, circa 1962

In this interview, Lindsay describes her experiences in and out of California institutions in the 1950s and her life in Synanon until she left in 1974, disillusioned and frustrated by the changes that Dederich was making in the organization. 

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Fiction Points: Eva Hagberg

betterdarkevaEva Hagberg, author of How to be Loved: A Memoir of Life-Saving Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019), holds degrees in architecture from UC Berkeley and Princeton and a PhD in Visual and Narrative Culture from Berkeley, from which she received fellowships and awards for her research and teaching. She has written and published two books on architecture, Dark Nostalgia: Faultlessly Stylish Interiors (Thames & Hudson 2009) and Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape (The Monacelli Press 2011). Her literary work, architectural criticism, and other writings have appeared in Dwell, Guernica, the New York Times, Tin House, and Wired among other venues.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Buildings and feelings.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Ideally its use as a future primary source document! Drugs and alcohol appear in the book both as plot points and also as mechanisms for understanding the particular cultural crisis we’re in (have always been in?). While my experience is of course only my own, I can see how a historian might look at how our intense capitalist culture has led to total alienation has led to a desire to connect has led to, for me, the drive to connect through using drugs. There’s a scene in the book in which I describe how cocaine gave me a sense of intimacy (false, of course!) that was all I craved. So a historian might wonder – why did I crave that intimacy? What about growing up in the eighties and nineties in the U.S., in the cultural milieu I grew up in, and living in NYC in the early 00’s, led to my feeling that cocaine and alcohol were the best ways to relate to people? Then again, I was at a party last night and saw the youth doing drugs, and it seemed almost like nothing had changed. Have things changed in the last twenty years? That’s for the historians.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I wanted the protagonist of my narrative to have some sort of cathartic arc – if the conceit of the book is that friendship saved my life, and friendship profoundly saved me (and that IS the conceit of the book), then the question is, well, okay, why did my life need to be saved? Why did friendship impact me so deeply? And one of the reasons was that I’d been so desperate to connect but so afraid to connect that I’d turned to powdered friends and liquid friends. I needed to write about the way in which I relied on drugs and alcohol, and then stopped relying on drugs and alcohol and replaced the reliance with friendship – and so it was important to try, to the best of my ability, to describe that replacement.

howtobelovedHow would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

In the book, cocaine functions as a kind of alternative to the deep and profound friendship I experienced with Allison and Lauren, and a block to my earlier relationship with Leila. It’s the wedge between me and the rest of the world, but of course at the time I thought it was my solution. In terms of crafting a narrative, I wanted to avoid cliches – there are so many amazing alcohol / drug memoirs, and I wanted to bring a precision and a specificity to the way in which I described how drugs and alcohol impacted me – at various points in time / the plot. If I’d had to somehow elide any mention of drugs, I imagine that the narrative wouldn’t have worked as well – the reader would have wondered why I was so alienated from others, and what the locus of that alienation was.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

People often ask me why I’m a memoirist, and the short answer is that I am just compelled to use my own life experiences as a primary medium. Everything that I intellectually metabolize seems to get metabolized through using my own observations, experiences, stories, etc. So drugs work in my writing in a similar way to how everything else I’ve experienced works – they’re an available archive or series of pieces of evidence that I can use to build an argument. The argument of How to be Loved was that we have an inherently capitalist approach to illness – that with enough work, time, etc, we will get better – and that this capitalist approach towards recovery-as-progress actually leaves out a lot of the real growth / powerful experiences that I and many other extremely sick people experienced in the middle of being sick. So my experiences with drugs were just part of the available archive.

I will always write about myself and I will always have had experiences with drugs, so I imagine I will eventually write about my experiences with drugs again!

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that How to be Loved gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

I would love to see this as a major motion picture! I’ve been listening to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” a lot lately – and relating to how afraid I was to change anything in my life that wasn’t working for me. So many people told me to Wise Up, of course – but it took what it took. So it might be sort of ironically perfect.

Fiction Points: Tracy Auerbach

tracyTracy Auerbach‘s YA debut, The Sin Soldiers (Parliament House 2019), is the first novel in her Fragments series. She is the author of one novel for adults, The Human Cure (48Fourteen 2011), and her short stories have been published in venues such as Micro-horror, the Writing Disorder and (Dis)ability anthologies. Auerbach previously wrote and taught STEM curricula for the New York Department of Education, and her academic work has appeared in Language Magazine.


Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I would tell the nuns that I write about human nature. I use fantasy as a vehicle for describing and exploring the inner workings of our psyches. I would warn them that my new book deals with the seven deadly sins, so maybe they should say a little prayer or something before they open it up. I would tell the penguin that humans are ridiculous creatures and that if he wants to be both amused and horrified he should have someone read The Sin Soldiers to him, or at least have someone with opposable thumbs turn the pages.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

The Sin Soldiers is a post-apocalyptic story about a society that has figured out how to control soldiers by capitalizing on their addictions. These are scientists who have studied the role that drugs, alcohol, and other various addictive elements (food, rage, etc.) have played in our society, and they have weaponized it. Colored compounds have different effects on the soldiers in this world, but “blue compound” is the one that makes them literally unable to say no to their basest urges. The soldiers are also genetically engineered to be predisposed to addiction.

sinsoldiersWhat led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

In my experience, there are two kinds of people in the world: moderates and ‘more, more, more’ people. I fall into the second category. I will finish the entire box of cookies or binge the entire Netflix series. Every. Time. Drugs and alcohol, and other addictive things, aren’t usually good choices for me. And they aren’t good for others who fall into my category. I’m continually fascinated by the way two people can be exposed to the same thing and have such incredibly different reactions. Books that deal with addiction of any kind speak to me, and I always write about what speaks to me.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

I think that drugs can easily be substituted with anything that plays upon the pleasure center of the brain. But if human vice wasn’t in my writing arsenal, then I’d have a problem. I employ human (or non-human) vice in most of my narratives as a vehicle to drive character motivation.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

I think that the most interesting thing about drugs in my writing is how they provide an obstacle to the characters’ more altruistic instincts. The intrapersonal conflict they create is definitely something that I’d love to explore more in future projects.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that The Sin Soldiers gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

Yes, let’s hope! I would definitely love for Radioactive by Imagine Dragons to play while the credits roll. That song is totally appropriate for The Sin Soldiers, and I listened to it often while I was writing.